Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Does a reasonably exhaustive search now require a DNA analysis?

After writing my last blog post on the Reasonable Man Standard, I had some further thoughts. It appears to me that all of the previous genealogical conclusions are now suspect. With the advent of DNA testing, it appears that without resorting to this additional "historical fact" all of the prior conclusions now become unreasonably inconclusive. What made me think of this was my example about the possession of my own birth certificate. Can I be reasonably sure that I am related to my own parents if I do not avail myself of a DNA test? Of course, to have a valid test, I would have to have a DNA test of my parents or at least, all of my siblings.

Do we really think that this is a natural consequence? Then why do we measure the accuracy of a conclusion by the exhaustiveness of the search? Shouldn't we just start out with DNA testing, then explore the results with paper research? Oh, wait, isn't it the other way around? Don't we have to do the paper research BEFORE we do the DNA testing? Now I am all confused. Which comes first, the DNA testing or the paper research? Or does it matter?

DNA testing can make only very general statements about your ancestry unless it is done in conjunction with competent "paper" research (paper research may be online, but what we are considering is the historical, documented record). Most, if not nearly all, of the anecdotal stories about genealogical success from DNA testing comes from researchers who are trying to solve a known problem with their ancestry, such as which of two or more ancestors is related to the researcher. I am not commenting on the accuracy of a DNA test or even the procedures involved. My comments are directed at the role DNA plays in the research community.

I have listened to recognized genealogical authorities give their opinion that no ancestral relationship can be taken for granted as accurate until it is documented and "proved." My guess is that position would certainly limit the amount of genealogy done by anyone, but on the other hand a good skeptical attitude is important when doing any kind of research. But of course, DNA testing was not generally available or reliable just a few short years ago. So ten or so years ago, expert genealogist wrote detailed journal article about solving the relationship of some person's ancestor, either their own or a client's. Shouldn't the Genealogical Proof Standard, if followed, now require DNA testing? My guess is that the expert would respond that further documentation and even DNA testing would not call the original results into question for the reason that the researcher followed the Genealogical Proof Standard, or said that they did and nobody questioned the fact. What about all those conclusions made before the Standard was formulated? Aren't they, by virtue of the fact that they were done before there was a Standard, really in question? By the way, the first edition of BCG Genealogical Standards Manual was published in 2000.

Board for Certification of Genealogists (Washington, D.C.). The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000.

How could any of the earlier journal articles be said to have followed the Standards before they were published? Aren't we all in that same watershed type of circumstance with DNA testing?

In reality, I am not an advocate either way. In fact, I think the entire argument is irrelevant. Genealogy is historical not adversarial. Everything we conclude should be based on records. DNA is just another record. If I have a birth certificate showing when and where I was born and the identity of my parents, something is going to have to happen before I will spend any time or money to verify that relationship. If I just happen to get a DNA test and I am surprised to find out I am not related to my parents, that is just another instance of what can happen with research. All historical and therefore genealogical conclusions are tentative. The discovery of a new document (or procedure such as DNA) could change all of our previous conclusions. The the fact that it hasn't happened to you, yet may say more about the documents presently available than it does about the facts of any claim.

Some conclusions made without reference to the Standard may be correct even without any sources or citations to authority. Some conclusions that were carefully crafted using the type of research outlined in the Genealogical Proof Standards may be subsequently proven to be in error. Anyone who can't admit that this is true probably has not spent much of their life in a courtroom.


  1. As you say, James, "DNA is just another record!" And, DNA can be a conclusive record, eliminating the need to search in areas where documented proof does not exist, or continue, as the case may be. Case in point: In the early 1700s there appeared, both in the James/Appomattox River of Virginia and in Maryland, the surname Pardue/Perdue. Through the years, researchers collaborated and documented 2 lines of descent, one to Virginia and one to Maryland, but were never able to establish if there was a connection. That is...until the advent of DNA. With much effort in finding willing participants to establish a yDNA profile for each of the two ancestors, we learned that those documented lines of descent had no degree of kinship within the past 1000 years! Thus, when I am sometimes asked, "are you kin to the chicken man?", I say, " least not within the past 1000 years!" Well, at least not on a surname basis!
    : )

    1. Exactly, my point. But without the paper genealogy to raise the question, a general DNA test would not be relevant.

  2. I helped a woman at the Family History Center on Saturday who has been trying for years to track down the identity of her husband's grandfather.

    We went through all her materials and conclusions and I narrowed down the possibilities to three men with the right name: one in Newark, two in Scranton.

    To make the story short: after looking at all the data, it turns out that her best next step is getting her husband or a son to take a DNA test. The New Jersey family is very active in doing genealogy, so if a DNA test showed they were cousins, it would either solve the mystery without any further need for documentation, or else suggest that she should explore the Scranton connection more closely.